“The Changeling,” a gory and convoluted play that takes place in a Spanish castle and in an insane asylum, should intrigue students of Shakespeare, if for no other reason than that it was written just a few years after Shakespeare’s death, by two of his younger contemporaries, Thomas Middleton (who is said to have served as script doctor for Macbeth and Measure for Measure) and Samuel Rowley.
Red Bull Theater, which is mounting a production of the play at the Lortel through January 24, is so devoted to Jacobean drama that it takes its name from a playhouse that competed with Shakespeare’s Globe. On their website and in the program, Red Bull provides some scholarly perspective on “The Changeling” and its authors, who apparently divided up the writing tasks, Middleton taking on the scenes in the castle and Rowley those in the madhouse. What Red Bull does on stage with the play, directed by artistic director Jesse Berger with a 13-member cast, is always competent, sometimes striking, but for me, I’m sorry to say, for all the stabbings and embraces, more appreciated than enjoyed.
The beauteous Beatrice-Joanna (Sara Topham), who is to marry Alonzo in a matter of days, meets Alsemero (Christian Coulson) outside a church; the mutual attraction is instantaneous. What to do? Although repulsed by her father’s servant, De Flores (Manoel Felciano), Beatrice takes advantage of his infatuation with her by asking him to kill Alonzo (John Skelley). He does so, with relish — and cuts off Alonzo’s finger to take his diamond ring. In payment after the fact, De Flores demands that the virginal Beatrice sleep with him. Beatrice is shocked:
Why, ’tis impossible thou canst be so wicked, Or shelter such a cunning cruelty,
To make his death the murderer of my honor!
Thy language is so bold and vicious,
I cannot see which way I can forgive it With any modesty.
De Flores has a great rejoinder:
Tush, you forget yourself: A woman dipped in blood and talk of modesty!
She gives in, and thus begins their descent into lust and perdition, illustrating one of the core themes of the play: It’s a myth (one that persists to this day) that a person’s outward appearance matches their character — that a woman with a beautiful face cannot contain an ugly soul.
This plot has its mirror in the secondary plot taking place in alternating scenes in a madhouse, where the warden (Christopher McCann) imprisons his younger wife Isabella (Michelle Beck) there, fearing she will otherwise be unfaithful. In those days, the insane were categorized as “fools” – mentally deficient from birth – or “madmen” – those who lose touch with reality. Two madhouse inmates, Antonio (Bill Army) and Francisco (Philippe Bowgen), are feigning being a fool and a madman, respectively, in order to bed Isabella. But, though Beck plays Isabella as a bawdy earth mother (helped by Beth Goldenberg’s bodice-hugging costume), she is the virtuous one, rejecting her suitors’ comic come-ons.
Why has Shakespeare remained central to Western culture, while his contemporaries are mostly of interest to scholars and a few Bard nuts? Adam Gopnik asked a similar question in the New Yorker recently, after the Beatles catalogue was finally put online: Why We Remember the Beatles and Forget So Much Else. “We all want to stop the process of traumatic change from happening, and sometimes we do it by forgetting everything, sometimes by remembering almost too much. The Beatles linger; other bands unduly fade. (Do we really need to remember “Mr. Moonlight” or “Don’t Pass Me By?” We do, though.)” I happen to like “Don’t Pass Me By,” which is one of the Beatles’ clever pastiche songs, worth knowing in the context of their entire body of work, and I’m not sure Gopnik has found a satisfactory answer. But it is a question worth pondering why “The Changeling” is performed far more rarely than Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” which shares the odd mix of comedy and tragedy, gore and romance.